In just under a week, much have already been written about Steven Gerrard’s decision to leave Liverpool at the end of the season. It is not like Gerrard has announced his retirement – though most would argue a move to Major League Soccer in America is akin to retiring – and it is this reaction towards his decision to only leave his boyhood club for a last football challenge that shows how highly regarded Gerrard is and should be in the footballing world.
With countless articles about Gerrard’s career at Liverpool and his possible next moves, I shall try to write my own viewpoint on what Gerrard means and is to the Reds, what he has achieved, why he is better than most, and how he should be best remembered as.
LFC’s Very Own
The boyhood Liverpool fan broke onto the scene in the 1998/99 season. It would only be in the next season that he finally scored the first of his current tally of 116 Premier League goals, and most will certainly hope he can get, at least, two more by the end of this season and his Liverpool career.
Gerrard’s rise in the Liverpool team was quick, and around three years after cementing his first team place, he inherited the captain’s armband from Kop favourite Sami Hyypiä in 2003. By then, Gerrard was already part of the Liverpool side, under French manager Gerard Houllier, that won the unique treble in the 2000/01 season, winning both domestic cups as well as the UEFA Cup (now Europa League). Gerrard already showed much potential and it was only after he became Liverpool’s permanent captain, that the midfielder really came to the fore, most famously in the two cup finals in 2005 and 2006.
Besides Gerrard’s well-known match-winning abilities, it was his loyalty off-the-pitch that really cemented his place among many Kopites as a Liverpool legend. Gerrard has played with many world-class players in his time at the club. Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, just to name a few. These three strikers all have one thing in common, they left for supposedly greener pastures while Gerrard stayed. While Owen’s career subsequently declined, Torres never recapturing his Anfield form and Suarez playing third fiddle at Barcelona, Gerrard always stayed true to his favourite club, rejecting overtures from Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, as he would only want to win that elusive Premier League title with his boyhood Reds. Unfortunately for Gerrard, that dream and all hope is now lost.
Gerrard may not have been able to get his hands on the Premier League title, but he still has a medal tally that most players would be envy about. Besides the aforementioned unique treble of 2001, Gerrard has skippered his side to an unlikely Champions League triumph, a dramatic FA Cup the following year, and most recently, a League Cup victory under club legend Kenny Dalglish.
Gerrard managed to do this while being in mediocre Liverpool squads. The likes of Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Milan Baros somehow played above themselves during Liverpool’s triumphant European run in 2005, with Gerrard bagging the key goals at vital stages of the competition while continuously rallying his side forward. The FA Cup winning side contained the likes of Jan Kromkamp and Mohamed Sissoko, as Gerrard fired a extraordinary injury-time equaliser, on top of his assist and first equalising goal during the game. And not to forget, flop signings Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam were part of the League Cup-winning side of 2012.
Ironically, Gerrard did not win any trophy in what was arguably the two best Liverpool sides of the Premier League era. Back in 2008, a then-red hot Torres, backed up by the then-best midfield pairing at that time, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, tried but failed to help bring the title back to Anfield. And only just last season, a 50-goal strike duo of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge was ultimately undone by a porous defence as Gerrard saw his best chance of lifting a Premier League title slip from his grasp.
Still, the Liverpool skipper of 11 years won many individual awards, proving how highly regarded he was and still is by his peers in the game. On the international stage, Gerrard achieved 114 caps, scoring 21 goals for England. He appeared in three World Cups and two European Championships. Unlike most of his other underachieving England team-mates, Gerrard was always the one starred for the national team in these major tournaments. Only during the final World Cup in 2014 did Gerrard not reproduce the kind of form of previous international tournaments.
Character, Skill, Adaptability
There will always be the debate as to whether Gerrard is better than Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, or Patrick Vieira. Gerrard’s drive and determination could only really be matched by Keane and Vieira’s ferocity. Whereas Lampard had John Terry and Scholes had Keane, Gerrard only had himself, really only backed up by a vociferous Jamie Carragher. Gerrard not only voiced his opinion at his under performing team-mates and always demanded more fight and energy, Gerrard himself led by example. Gerrard led the Liverpool as their skipper, but he also knew when and how to follow, especially defending set-pieces when Carragher was in his own domain.
At his prime, Gerrard was one of the best box-to-box midfielders, making a tackle at the edge of his box and getting his shot away at the edge of the opponent’s box just moments later. Fans of Keane, Vieira and Lampard will argue that this trio were better at this box-to-box play than Gerrard was, but it is impossible to argue that Lampard was a better tackler than Gerrard, or that Keane and Vieira was better at scoring goals or driving forward from midfield. Also, Gerrard’s passing ability was and still is very close to Scholes’ unworldly standards.
The best argument for Gerrard being better than the other four will certainly be his positional adaptability. Rafa Benitez may have viewed Gerrard as not being disciplined enough to be an effective central midfielder, but Benitez’s use of Gerrard during the Spaniard’s time as Liverpool manager certainly proved Gerrard’s all-round flexibility all over the pitch.
Under Benitez, Gerrard was deployed at right midfield to accommodate for Alonso and a specialist defensive midfielder, which made use of the skipper’s magnificent crossing deliveries. A couple of years later, Benitez placed Gerrard in the No.10 role behind Torres, where Gerrard’s knack at arriving at the opposition box just on time saw him score 16 goals. Under Brendan Rodgers’ last season, Gerrard was deployed as a deep-lying playmaker and to much success as the Reds ran so close to the title. Gerrard also ended the Champions League final at right wing-back, coincidentally the position he played in his first-ever substitute appearance back in 1998. For a short period with England, Roy Hodgson experimented with the idea of Gerrard deployed in the inside left position, interchanging with the No.10, likely Wayne Rooney.
For most of their careers, Lampard always had a Claude Makelele-type player behind him, or Makelele himself during Lampard’s prime, with another midfield runner just beside him. Lampard always had the benefit of being played in his best position. Similarly, Vieira and Keane were never shunted out wide to accommodate others, while Scholes retired from England after being disgruntled at his left midfield position. Proponents may argue that as Gerrard was never as good as the others, he was never given full reigns in central midfield, but this flexibility of his also proved how Gerrard was always a team player and could show how Gerrard’s flexibility made him a better player than the other supposed more skilful and decorated midfielders.
If ever there was a term to go one better than legend, it would certainly be given to Gerrard. It is certainly a pity that Gerrard will not finish his career at Anfield and become that one-club man like Ryan Giggs or Scholes. However, like many decisions he took before this, Gerrard’s choice to leave this year was to benefit his beloved club. His announcement to depart around five months before he really does allow Rodgers to use these months to plan for life after Gerrard, while still being able to call upon his skipper should he need to. Gerrard’s decision also allows Rodgers to plan for his leadership succession, and allow the likes of Jordan Henderson and/or Martin Skrtel to step up and show their leadership abilities, and possibly tussle over the armband. Beyond this season, Rodgers will also have one less problem to consider, in how to fit a slowing Gerrard into his team and can fully concentrate on playing his best team every single week.
Besides that, Rodgers can also start to look for possible replacements for Gerrard. At the moment, Emre Can looks the best bet, and it is hoped that one full season at the club and playing under Gerrard will help Can fill the boots next season. Henderson’s dynamism and meteoric improvement will also be required next season post-Gerrard. From within, Jordon Rossiter could finally get his chance to do one better than previous Gerrard pretenders Danny Guthrie, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey; while Rodgers will certainly dip into the transfer market for a dynamic midfielder, one that he actually already needs now.
There were emotional farewells in the past few years, first for Hyypia, then for Carragher; this time though, it will undoubtedly be different. Gerrard, like those two before him, will leave with his image, reputation and bond with the Kop intact, and it would be no surprise if he returns as manager in a few years, once his playing days are really over.
And who would bet against Gerrard the manager winning the only title he could not achieve as a player?